Epicurean Arguments Against Racism

The reality-show spectacle of contemporary politics and society in our corner of the world the last few years has brought racism (and our favorite euphemism for it, “white nationalism”) out into the open. Efforts are proliferating to normalize overt racism, even in the highest circles of power. As Epicureans, we should always be thinking of ways in which Epicurean doctrines apply to our real world problems, and attempting to articulate what moral guidance we can find in our tradition for contemporary problems, always ensuring that our considerations are coherent with the rest of our worldview. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue of racism, as it relates to several Epicurean teachings.

Taking Pride in our Personal Qualities

The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

VS 45, which was invoked in my latest Twentieth message, is an excellent starting point in this discussion–particularly the portion about taking “pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances“.

Notice that this is tied here to “the study of nature”–meaning that this is a conclusion that we arrive at after carefully observing the nature of things. I believe that this ties to the fact that, when we observe people, we are observing concrete individuals and subjects, and we must judge them as such–not as abstractions, not as idealized and un-individualized objects. We are able to successfully form inter-subjective relations with others when we allow them their individuality, rather than project our values or prejudices. To paraphrase from A Few Days in Athens: “Stoics/idealists see humankind (in the abstract), Epicureans see (concrete, individual) men and women“.

Mortals do not get to choose what race, caste, ethnicity, tribe, or nation, they are born into. This is purely accidental, and has nothing to do with what one deserves or earns, what one has sacrificed or fought for. Philosophy requires each individual to be accountable for the content of her own character, her own qualities and habits. This is a reflection of our true worth, and this we are entitled to take pride in.

Races as Platonic Communities

Epicureanism is a philosophy of friendship, and few things are as toxic to friendship as politics. Insofar as race is political, racial discourse is political discourse.

If one wanted to inquire into what is most opposite to friendship, and the most fruitful of aversions, we would see simply that it is politics. – Philodemus of Gadara

Furthermore, we should ask ourselves what is the nature of racial “identity”. Is it real, or is it a cultural artifact, a construct invented by people? What is the ontological status of “race”, as it is used in our conventional discourse? If we investigate this, we have to conclude that racial communities are imagined communities. They are Platonic communities.

We are reminded of Dunbar’s number: anthropologist Robin Dunbar once sought to evaluate how many REAL, inter-personal relations the human brain is capable of processing, on average, and came up with the figure 147.8 … that is to say, the members of our species have the neurological ability to form less than 150 true friendships on average.

This is our natural community, our real community. Any “sense of community” beyond this, is therefore considered an imagined community. It’s purely Platonic, or political. Failure to acknowledge this distinction may lead to great dangers for our happiness. We may end up sacrificing our lives, or our most important and cherished values, for the sake of an imagined collective, and completely lose sight of the things that actually make life worth living, destroying them.

Politicians, oil investors and others who wish to profit from warfare, often appeal to nationalist sentiments in order to exploit people’s sense of imagined belonging for their own purposes. Most wars and terrorist acts (whether done for the sake of “the white race”, or “our people”, or “the nation”, or whether done for the sake of “Islam”, “Christianity” or “the Muslim community”) are inspired by loyalty to imagined communities, which instrumentalize the individual, and whose narratives monopolize people’s sense of identity and replace the narratives of our natural communities. This is from the Book on Community:

Every instrumentalization of a community and of the people who form it is destructive.

The Epicureans were right: we’re not “political animals.” It’s not majority decisions or power games that make us more fully ourselves, but personal freedom based on responsibility, belonging, and learning with those with whom we have decided to live.

The Epicureans (knew that that a community must protect itself against many of the partisan battles of the polis … They) also created an overwhelming defense against the great theological stories. Today these gods have evolved into “imagined communities”: homeland, class, gender … But the effect is the same: to force the individual to show loyalty to imaginary beings with whom conversation and negotiation is impossible. And since conversation is impossible with a divinity, a country, or a social class, all of them are replaced with magical-symbolic objects ….

… To accept nationalism means sooner or later accepting the subordination of the real community of work, life and affections to the imagined community of the nation.

This last paragraph could be applied to “racism” just as well.

Eumetry Concerns Friendship, Not Race

He who best knew how to meet fear of external foes made into one family all the creatures he could; and those he could not, he at any rate did not treat as aliens; and where he found even this impossible, he avoided all association, and, so far as was useful, kept them at a distance. – Principal Doctrine 39

The above doctrine likely originates in the Timocrates Affair in the early Garden, where one of the brothers of Metrodorus declared himself an enemy of Epicureanism. In recent years, it has been elaborated by people like Michel Onfray, who coined the word eumetry to refer to the right distance, or safe distance, that we should keep with each person.

Epicureans invoke PD 39 whenever it becomes clear that friendship with a particular person is impossible. However, there is no indication whatsoever that this doctrine says, or implies, that the cosmopolitan philosophy of Epicurus should exclude certain races or ethnicities. People of any ethnicity may hold Epicurean opinions. In antiquity, Epicurean Scholarchs sent missionaries to Asia, and some of the most prominent Epicureans were from what is today Lebanon and Syria (Lucian of Samosata, Philodemus of Gadara, Diogenes of Sidon), and they successfully converted so many Hellenized Jews to Epicureanism that the rabbis felt threatened and were compelled to produce propaganda against Epicurean ideas. Ancient Epicureans must have been very actively engaged in their recruitment. In our online Epicurean communities, we have mostly seen people who are of European ancestry, but we also have seen Blacks, Hispanics, and we have had sincere Epicureans of Punjabi (North Indian) heritage–like our old Australian friend Amrinder Singh, may he rest in peace.

And so PD 39 must never be used as a blanket excuse to mask racism. This was the message that guests found at the door of the Garden in Athens:

Welcome, Guest!

Here you do well to tarry!

Here our highest good is pleasure!

In his book against the use of empty words, Epicurus says that “we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action“. Vatican Saying 28 also says that “for friendship’s sake we must run risks“. The minor risks that come with welcoming newcomers, and with making new friends, are inherent to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens. Therefore, it makes sense that the Garden would have been a welcoming space and that, only IF and AFTER a particular individual has proven their inability to be a good friend, then the person would be shunned (as per PD 39), and not prior to that. In this manner, our shunning of a social delinquent is empirically-based and consistent with the idea that we must run risks for the sake of the necessary pleasures of friendship. These issues arise often in the course of managing online Epicurean forums, but the principles apply in our social lives in general.

I hope this is just the beginning of a very important conversation among us. To summarize, I submit these three Epicurean arguments against racism, all of which are in my view consistent with our systematic methods of studying nature:

  1. the one for taking pride in our own personal qualities and not those attributed to accidents or to fate
  2. the one in favor of natural community, as opposed to Platonic community
  3. the one in favor of taking the risks necessary for friendship, which includes having a welcoming community of true friends, rather than a hostile one, and only judging new students of philosophy empirically–that is, “based on the results observed”

P.S. Our friend Nathan adds: “We tend to avoid hot-button, political issues, and racial prejudice in American history has always been heavily politicized. It is proper, however, to demonstrate that prejudiced thinking is never beneficial; racists make unnecessary enemies, limit the scope of their own imagination, and reduce the possibility of unexpected pleasure“.

Tilemahos adds: From the inscription of Diogenes the Oionandian: “Moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here”.

Philodemus Against Arrogance

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.